Many Wisconsin schools offer or require financial literacy classes, but it's not mandated

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed using $5 million to fund K-12 financial literacy curriculum, but it's not enough for all students — meanwhile, some Republicans want courses required but aren't funding them.

The Badger Project

March 13, 2023

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A lobby sign with letters on a wall above an open door reads Student Financial Aid.

Research has found that students who have received financial literacy training are more likely to pay back student loans. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Badger Project

By Peter Cameron, The Badger Project

Ever since she was little, Brittany Ousterhout wanted to be a veterinarian. She had a passion for horses and wanted to spend her days around them.

Then she ran the numbers. In a financial literacy course at Milton High School, Ousterhout calculated the years she would spend in school, the six-figure debt she would accumulate, and the comparatively small salary of a veterinarian.

“The math didn’t math for me,” she said recently after her shift as an ultrasound technician at a clinic in Madison. “It would have taken a long time to pay off.”

Ousterhout, now 24, worked full-time to put herself through community college and earn an associate’s degree, which cost about $15,000, she said. Now, she’s debt-free and earning a solid salary.

She changed the trajectory of her life for several reasons, not least of which was the number-crunching she had done in the financial literacy course.

“That was a huge factor in it,” Ousterhout said.

Brittany Osterhoult poses for a portrait while wearing examination globes and holding a transducer probe in front of an ultrasound machine with monitor.

Brittany Ousterhout, 24, works at a clinic in Madison as an ultrasound technician. She had originally wanted to be a veterinarian before she crunched the numbers in a high school class in financial literacy. (Credit: The Badger Project)

With the help of a $10,000 grant from the state’s Department of Financial Institutions, Milton High School made the course mandatory for all graduating seniors in 2017. It taught students how to do things like calculate and file their taxes, budget, shop for insurance and invest for the future.

While many schools around the state also provide or require a financial literacy course, including Milwaukee Public Schools, it is not mandatory in Wisconsin. State law only requires that school districts “adopt academic standards for financial literacy and incorporate instruction in financial literacy into curriculum in grades K-12.”

Meanwhile, at least 17 states guarantee, or have committed to guaranteeing, all high school students take a standalone personal finance course of at least one semester before graduation, according to Next Gen Personal Finance, a nonprofit that promotes financial literacy education.

A drag on the economy

More than 43 million Americans have federal student loan debt, according to the Education Data Initiative, an organization which aims to provide hard numbers and facts on education to the public. Forbes estimates all student loan debt totals about $1.75 trillion in the U.S. More than 90 percent of that debt is federal student loans.

Including private loan debt, the average student loan debt balance sits between $38,000 and $40,000, according to the Education Data Initiative.

That debt is a drag on individuals’ futures and, generally, on local and national economies, experts say. Student debt reduces spending, stifles business growth and constricts housing markets. Some research shows that high student loan debt prevents many Americans from saving enough for retirement and from buying a home.

Young people who receive some financial literacy instruction generally make better choices and achieve better outcomes down the road, research suggests.

Those students are less likely to be delinquent on their credit, and, on average, have better credit scores, said Melody Harvey, an assistant professor in the Department of Consumer Science at UW-Madison. They also are more likely to use federal loans instead of the more expensive, private variety, she added.

Beyond those benefits, Harvey’s research has found that students who receive some financial literacy instruction also are less likely to use expensive, short-term, “payday loans.” Other research has found that financially literate students are more likely to pay back their student loans, she noted.

‘Win-win for everyone involved’

A lack of funds is a primary reason schools decide against requiring financial literacy classes, Harvey said. A high school probably would need a minimum of $50,000 a year to cover the cost of a teacher leading the course, said Amy Kenyon, the career coordinator at Milton High School who helped launch the class.

Those at Milton High School say it’s well worth the additional expense. When academic planners were considering making the course mandatory, their objective was straightforward, but ambitious.

“How can we change the outlook of the Milton community over the next 20 years by this class?” said Nicholas Manogue, who developed the class with Kenyon and taught it for six years before moving to Blackhawk Technical College to educate professionals on how to teach their trade. “How can we financially change Milton?”

While noting how politicized education has become, D. Kevin Jordahl, the current business teacher at Milton High School, said “anyone looking at helping prepare young adults for their future would value and choose to make a class like this class happen. I think this would be a win-win for everyone involved.”

The state Legislature is responsible for making changes to graduation requirements, said Chris Bucher, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The legislature also could set aside funds specifically for the class.

The issue has been percolating.

In the previous legislative session and again in the 2023 session, state Sen. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan), a former 1st-grade teacher, said she has introduced a bill that would require students to earn school credit in personal financial literacy to graduate.

But groups including the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance maintain that the measure creates an unfunded mandate, and the bill so far has failed to advance.

‘Throw(ing) money at the problem’

Sitting atop a historic, $7-billion surplus, former science teacher and school principal Gov. Tony Evers has proposed setting aside $5 million for a competitive grant program, for which schools can apply, that would fund financial literacy classes.

“Our ‘Do the Math’ initiative will help ensure our kids have the tools and skills to make smart budgeting and financial decisions to prepare for their future,” the governor said in his State of the State address in January.

The program is included in the Democratic governor’s two-year state budget proposal.

But the Republican-controlled Legislature holds the power to compose whatever state budget it wants. Evers can edit it slightly, or veto the entire document.

The Legislature’s powerful Joint Committee on Finance, which the Republican majority controls, will create the budget over the coming months.

State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), a committee vice-chair, said in an email that, “I support financial literacy, however, I have reservations about state curriculum mandates because I believe curriculum decisions are best made at the local school board level.”

He noted the committee “is in the beginning stages of the budget-writing process. We have a multi-month process of public hearings, stakeholder input and feedback from Caucus members, so I do not know the specifics of what will be ultimately included in the state budget.”

Ballweg, also a member of the Joint Finance Committee, said in an email that the governor’s plan “throws money at the problem” and “does not require these important courses to be taught.”

“While I agree that financial literacy is something that needs to be taught to Wisconsin students, I disagree with the steps outlined in the ‘Do the Math’ initiative,” she said.

Asked why her bill does not fund the mandate, Ballweg responded that she is working with organizations such as Next Gen Personal Finance, banks and credit unions, to support paying for the courses.

She added that the state only requires 15 specific credits for high school graduation — courses that include English, history, math and science.

“The addition of this half credit will not change how Wisconsin schools are funded,” she said, adding that funding for schools is based on their student population, not the number of courses taught.

Dan Rossmiller, government relations director for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, took exception with that characterization.

“The fact that Wisconsin schools are funded on their student population means they receive no additional funding when they are mandated to provide additional required classes, even if doing so increases their costs,” he said in an email. “In other words, a school’s funding is matched to students, not costs.”

“If a school gets new costs mandated on it (such as having to hire a new teacher or buy new curricular materials),” Rossmiller continued, “this means they have no additional money to cover those costs. Essentially, they must take money from elsewhere in their budget to cover those additional costs.”

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.

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